When we talk about climate change, especially when we’re talking about “solutions” to climate change or “getting to net-zero”, we talk about electric vehicles. The E.U. has made the transition to electric vehicles a priority in policy and a mandate for the market. California and the E.U. have both banned cars powered by fossil fuels beginning in 2035. Volvo is expected to be completely electric by 2030. By 2035, G.M.
Even if the electricity used is from gas or coal, the electric vehicle will produce less greenhouse gas over its lifetime. Electric vehicles emit 30 percent less emissions in most areas, although this can vary depending on where they are.
But I think the need for electric vehicles is being glossed over and masked in conventional wisdom. The transportation sector is responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emission in the U.S. The problem is the cars! Perhaps some people think that’s not worth focusing on – we aren’t going to get rid of cars – but I think we accept them as a necessity without really considering the trade-offs we are making.
As I mentioned above, there are obvious problems with electric cars: where do they get their metals? Do I dare to remind you about seabed mining? How do you get electricity? The assumption behind both questions is that we should value and continue to use cars and truck instead of trying figure out how to decrease personal vehicle ownership, because cars and truck and traffic make the life more expensive and unhealthy for people and planet.
The spring of last year was marked by a number of occurrences. New York Times ran this story: “In Norway, the Electric Vehicle Future Has Already Arrived,” noting that 80 percent of new cars sold in 2022 were fully electric. “Norway’s experience suggests that electric vehicles bring benefits without the dire consequences predicted by some critics.”
The story also goes on to say that Norway has been promoting electric vehicles since 1990: electric vehicles were exempted from value-added and import taxes and from highway tolls; drivers didn’t have to pay for municipal parking and could drive in bus lanes. Not to mention that 90 percent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower, which is 98 percent state-owned, and the government also subsidized the construction of fast charging stations.
There are only 5.5 millions people in Norway. Even so, only about 20% of the cars in Norway are electric. All of which leads me to think that I’m not sure how representative Norway is for basically any other country, especially those outside Europe.
So there are those considerations, which aren’t necessarily negatives about electric vehicles, and may not apply in a future where there aren’t gas-powered alternatives. It’s interesting to note that, even with massive infrastructure investments, cheap electricity, and big incentives for electrification in place, it took 30 years before 20 percent of cars were fully electric.
Electric vehicles are heavier than conventional vehicles due to the batteries. And in the US, that’s saying something, since most cars are SUVs and trucks, which are also very heavy! In accidents, heavier cars are more dangerous to pedestrians, in particular.
It takes more energy to move heavier objects (that’s why bigger cars have fewer miles per gallon!). But they also put greater pressure on the tires of their cars and our roads.
So even though electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions from burning gas, they create a lot of particulate matter pollution – particularly PM 2.5, which is 1 of the 6 criteria pollutants regulated by the EPA because it can get into our bloodstream and into our lungs and cause all kinds of health problems – because they wear down their tires more, and more quickly.
Recent research on the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project found that statewide carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions decreased from 2010-2021 but that primary PM2.5 increased. The reductions were also primarily located in the wealthiest communities because, even with incentives, that’s who buys electric cars. They are really just exacerbating the existing air pollution dynamics where poor people of colour are disproportionately affected.
If all the electricity comes from clean sources, then they will also transfer the urban pollution (from tailpipe emissions) to the extra-urban areas that generate the electricity. It means cleaner air for people in cities (partly, except for that tire dust) and while there’s less pollution from electricity generation (or none, if it comes from clean sources), it’s not nothing.
And then there’s the physical pollution, from tires and brakes, to a lesser extent. Tires are made mostly from about 20 percent natural rubber, 24 percent synthetic rubber (aka petroleum) and then a bunch of additives – steel fillers, heavy metals, which do things like improve performance and durability and (in)flammability. Tires break down and release all those chemicals and synthetic rubber into the air. According to a Pew Charitable Trust report, about 78 per cent of ocean microplastics consist of synthetic tire rubber.
Tires contain 6PPD which is a chemical that helps to prevent cracking. But when the chemical reacts with ground-level ozone (which happens when you’re driving and the tire breaks down into dust), it’s transformed into other chemicals, one of which (6PPD-q) is “acutely toxic to 4 of 11 tested fish species” including coho salmon, according to a 2020 study.
All major tire manufacturers still use the original chemical, which can be found in roads and waterways around the world. No one has studied the impact on the secondary chemical on human health, but it’s “been detected in the urine of children, adults, and pregnant women in South China. The pathways and significance of that contamination are, so far, unknown.”
The quote above is taken from the article Yale Environment 360. It’s both disturbing and enlightening. The research is only just beginning. The compound that killed the fish is just one of the more than 400 chemicals and compounds, many of them carcinogenic, and we’re only starting to learn how widespread the problems they pose might be.
But electric vehicles do mean meaningful reductions in other pollutants: “Levels of nitrogen oxides, byproducts of burning gasoline and diesel that cause smog, asthma and other ailments, have fallen sharply as electric vehicle ownership has risen,” according to the Times article about Norway.
I’m definitely not the first person to say this, and I’m also not anti-electric vehicle! But the transition to a clean transportation system doesn’t just happen — it has to be designed, and it really should be designed, especially in cities, with the idea that not everyone should have to have a car. None of this is probably true in rural areas, but it’s definitely true in cities, which is where most people live! It should be easy to get around without having a car. A car can be expensive! Taking public transportation should be the default, not only because it’s better for the environment, but because it’s cheaper and faster. Or if you want to bike or walk, it should be possible – especially if you live in a city – to do that safely.
Zoning and housing policies can also help or hinder this dynamic. People will still need cars if they are forced to live in areas that are zoned only for single-family homes, or if the housing near their jobs is too expensive.
So basically, sprawl means that people need cars, and cars mean that we can’t really escape these dynamics, whether they are gas cars, or hybrids, or fully electric. This piece is mainly about the U.S., but even Norway hasn’t solved this problem.
Plus, about 2/3 of the world’s cities or urban areas that will exist by the middle of this century don’t exist yet, and if they aren’t planned intentionally – with access to public transportation or the capacity for people to live and work and go to school close together – future generations and societies will be locked into living in their cars. The average American spent 51 hours sitting in traffic last year — 15 hours more than 2021, though lower than the pre-pandemic high of 99 hours in 2019 – and I would so much rather spend that time doing anything else! Who’s with me?!
This was originally posted on Tatiana’s Substack News from a Changing Planet, a free twice-monthly newsletter about what on Earth is happening, with articles and essays about climate change and the environment.
Photo by Red Dot via Unsplash.